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Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:01 am

Changing how we do local government

 Former U.S. Senator from Illinois Alan J. Dixon, in his recent book, The Gentleman from Illinois, writes, “Frankly, I believe there are too many elective offices in most states, including an excess of counties with elective offices. And then there are all the elected officials in the small cities and townships in most states. The accumulation of all these elective offices leads to remarkably unnecessary expenditures and a good deal of corruption, all of which well could be eliminated by consolidations.”

Illinois has a unique, complex, extensive system of local government, with over 2,000 units more than the next nearest state. In Sangamon County, 2013 property tax revenue was distributed to 173 local districts. This doesn’t include the seemingly endless list of quasi-secret local entities that surface periodically. Nearly $1.5 billion is expended annually in Sangamon County by these local governments.

We don’t have too much local government, but we certainly have too many units. The recent Final Report of the Citizen’s Efficiency Commission (CEC), after a 2 ½-year review of local government in Sangamon County can be found on the website of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission. Individual recommendations, in good detail, can also be found on the site. Some items were simply beyond the scope, i.e., local school districts and CWLP, both of which need critical reviews. Some areas just didn’t rise to a level of recommendation, i.e., the way we do the business of tourism and conventions, or trying to justify Capital Township. Significant recommendations were made in several areas. Supporting the City of Springfield’s consolidation of garages, the CEC suggests a next step of going countywide, and inclusion of the parts management plan. A review of the Sanitary District and the City Sewer System resulted in a long-range recommendation for merger.

The big-ticket items of law enforcement, fire protection and emergency response received significant scrutiny. As interim steps toward a long-term solution, the CEC recommends local law enforcement agencies pursue increased regionalization of highly specialized functions, and a serious study on Sheriff/Municipal consolidation. Many of the local municipalities are struggling to provide basic police service, and the problem is getting worse. The Sheriff’s Department spends nearly 70 percent of its resources within the boundaries of Springfield, in the unincorporated areas, and less and less time in the county. Both the Springfield Police Department and Sheriff spend considerable time in each other’s jurisdiction. The SPD continues to fall behind in adopting technological improvements. The 2008 Blue Ribbon Report concluded that the SPD is overstaffed and overfunded compared to other downstate cities. The Sheriff, the SPD and the other 26 municipalities expend over $70 million annually for local law enforcement in the county for about 200,000 people. There is clearly a better way, and probably at considerably less cost.

The CEC recommends specific change in the structure of the 29 Fire Protection Districts in the county, outside of the Springfield Fire Department. Nine of these districts are actually served by the SFD by agreement. The other 20, with one exception, are volunteer, and face the problems of more costly and expanded training, resulting particularly in unacceptable response times in many areas of the county. The recommendation to consolidate to four districts would drastically improve response time for medical and other emergencies.

In the City of Springfield, the CEC recommends a comprehensive review of the structure of fire protection and emergency response. A relic of the commission form of government, the Springfield Fire Department is now a medical emergency response group, with fewer than 5 percent of calls actually fire-related. It has dropped from a Class I to a Class III fire rating. Springfield needs a state-of-the-art fire department, and it needs a cutting-edge medical/emergency response system. Maybe it is possible to achieve both with significantly less cost.

An initial finding of the CEC was the discovery of a 2 percent tax on out-of-state companies selling fire insurance in Illinois. This Foreign Fire Insurance Fund, which the state does not call a tax and does not collect, generates dollars that the Illinois Municipal League collects for downstate fire departments and distributes (after taking several thousands in fees) directly to a committee of firemen, with no oversight, review or accountability by any public officials. The Springfield Fire Department “slush fund” totaled about $1 million over the past four years. This ranks with the worst public policy in Illinois history.

Successful merger/consolidation is not new in Sangamon County. The city and county elections merged, the Park District and city recreation department merged, and the city and county health departments merged. In an excellent “Sangamon County Citizen Survey” by UIS this past spring, more than 70 percent of the respondents expressed support for local government consolidation.

Good local government may yet save the Union, but we have to change the way we do business. The Citizens of Sangamon County expect and deserve it, and I believe they will wholeheartedly support major change to achieve the efficiency, effectiveness and service they demand.

Bob Gray is president of the Citizens Club of Springfield and he was a commissioner of the former Citizens’ Efficiency Commission.


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